Korea's peaks offer nature and culture
IT'S hard to say exactly how many mountains there are in South Korea, partly because there are so many of them.
Former Korea Herald columnist Gary Rector noted: "There's no real way to delineate a mountain (here) as they all run together in ranges. Some mountains even have more than one name, depending on where you look at them from."
Most are part of the Taebaek Range, along the eastern coast, and its many offshoots.
The country is so rugged that even the capital city has no fewer than a dozen peaks, or high hills, of 200m or taller. Other major cities here are also circled, pocked or fringed by mountains.
Whether accessible or remote, though, just about every high point in the country has paths that follow its streams and ridges to the top. Many still bear the legacies of the Korean War in the form of trenches, foxholes and sentry boxes, sometimes right next to stone fortresses built as long as 1,000 years ago.
Of South Korea's mountains, 16 have been named national parks and 17 have been made provincial parks, mainly due to historical significance, scenic beauty or natural value. While the officially sanctioned peaks are unlikely to disappoint, plenty of undesignated mountains are also worth a climb.
Many believe that autumn is the best time to visit South Korea's hill country: for crisp, clean air and views of maple leaves turning gold, crimson and burnt orange. Mount Naejangsan National Park is particularly famous here for its autumn foliage, and its ridge, which is almost shaped like a full circle, is packed with hikers intoxicated by the colours at this time of year.
Other popular autumn destinations include mountains close to urban centres and South Korea's loftiest retreats, mounts Seoraksan, Jirisan and Hallasan.
Aside from autumnal colours and peaks that make up for shortness with steepness, South Korea's mountains offer a selection of novelties like death-defying suspension bridges, strangely shaped rocks and mesmerising sea views.
Those with a fear of heights may want to avoid the suspension bridge (called a "cloud bridge") at Wolchulsan National Park, South Jeolla Province. Spanning a deep gulf, the vertigo is offset by a view of the rice fields from which Wolchulsan rises abruptly.
South Chungcheong Province's Daedunsan Provincial Park also has a morbidly attractive cloud bridge, as does Cheongnyangsan Provincial Park in North Gyeongsang Province, which is still one of the less-visited mountains almost 500 years after Confucian scholar Yi Hwang wrote in a poem: "Only I and the seagulls know / Cheongnyangsan's 36 peaks."
Hikers less inclined to sweat it out on the trails can ride cable cars part way or all the way up at Duryunsan, Geumosan and Palgongsan provincial parks; Seoraksan National Park; Mount Geumjeongsan in Busan; and Mount Namsan in Seoul.
For oddly weathered rocks, Wolchulsan National Park takes the cake. Not only is it clustered with boulders and peaks that look like blobs and candle-wax drippings, but it also lays claim to a stone and a cave with shocking anatomical resemblances.
In North Jeolla Province, the twin peaks of Maisan Provincial Park look like a pair of horse's ears, as the name suggests. The taller of the two (686m high) can be climbed by hikers, thanks to stairs.
But the real attraction is Tapsa Temple, between the two "ears", where a mysterious collection of over 80 stone pagodas that were built by one man in the late 19th century remain standing.
While in Seoul, such urban prominences as Mount Inwangsan and Mount Ansan are the resting places of warped and hollowed boulders revered by shamanists, the most famous rock possibly being Insubong Peak.
Just outside the city limits in Bukhansan National Park, the cone-shaped peak can be seen on a clear day as part of the Mount Samgaksan triad.
While Bukhansan is the most-visited national park in the world per square metre, according to the Guinness World Records, Insubong is probably the country's most-trafficked rock-climbing destination.
For those hoping for an early climb up one of its 58 routes, stay the night at Insu Shelter or at the camping area nearby.
Aside from Seoraksan and Hallasan, there are several other South Korean mountains famous for ocean views from high prospects. Mount Manisan is perched at the southern end of Ganghwado Island, near Incheon, with a view down a curved slope of the West Sea and its smattering of islands and mud flats.
The peak, which is only 469m high, is the site of the ancient stone altar of Chamseongdan.
Some say that, in one form or another, the altar has been in use since Dangun, the mythical founder of Korean civilisation, made offerings here 4,000 years ago. An annual ceremony is conducted at this open-air altar on National Foundation Day, as well as at a similar altar on Mount Taebaeksan, Gangwon Province.
The South Jeolla provincial parks of mounts Duryunsan and Cheongwangsan near Korea's Land's End offer magnificent views of the peninsula's south-western archipelago.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK